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The Great QB Gold Rush Has Created Two Different NFL Draft Experiences

With such an intense pursuit of the top quarterback prospects, it’s hard to find a team that isn’t buying or selling in some capacity

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Since the start of the new NFL year in March, two trades have scrambled the top of the draft order. Two weeks ago, the 49ers moved up to no. 3 by trading their no. 12 pick and future picks to the Dolphins, who then sent the no. 12 pick to the Eagles for their no. 6 pick. More movement might be coming—ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Tuesday that the Falcons have received calls from multiple teams about their no. 4 pick, which they are “open to moving.”

All these moves have something in common, a factor that defines most drafts but has especially marked this year’s: They’re all about quarterbacks.

It’s likely that five passers—Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields—will be taken, in some order, in the top 10 picks. That run could easily include the first four selections for the first time. It would be a shock if Lawrence didn’t go to Jacksonville, Wilson didn’t go to the Jets, and the 49ers didn’t take a quarterback. Then it depends on the Falcons, who can command a sizable return from a team looking to trade up or select a quarterback themselves, something they haven’t ruled out.

“After [the top five quarterbacks], to me, there’s a significant drop-off,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

Quarterbacks matter. Wenowdis. This year, though, the fact that five quarterbacks could all go in the first half of the first round has effectively created two parallel draft experiences, one for those teams vying to take a passer and one for everyone else. The most interesting portion of the draft runs from the Falcons’ pick at no. 4 through the Patriots’ pick at no. 15, about the range where quarterback-needy teams could trade up or maybe get lucky and have one fall to them. Other teams can take one of the top players on their draft boards at any other position. Every team in that range—including the Panthers, who just traded for Sam Darnold—will spend the next three weeks choosing which experience is best for them and gaming out the circumstances that could impact their decision. The biggest shake-up potential comes from the possibility that a team might be masking its intentions. The Falcons are the best candidate to impose this kind of chaos. At no. 4, they’re guaranteed to have at least two of the top five quarterbacks to choose from. They could also effectively have the first pick in the draft among position players or trade down.

The Broncos, at no. 9, and the Patriots, at no. 15, are two of the other teams that will have to choose whether they want to be in the quarterback draft and whether they’re willing to pay a premium to obtain one, if necessary. Denver, especially, is at the mercy of the teams picking just ahead of it. If, for instance, one of these quarterback prospects falls, teams like Detroit (no. 7) and Carolina (no. 8) could become sellers for any team looking to leapfrog Denver. Even then, it’s unclear whether the Broncos are even in the market for a quarterback.

“I don’t know that they’ve given up on Drew Lock, you know?” McShay said. “But if you’re sitting there at 9 and Fields is available it wouldn’t shock me at all if they went for the quarterback spot.”

Another possibility is that either the Lions or the Panthers, despite having traded for starting quarterbacks this offseason, could decide that an elite quarterback prospect is too valuable to pass on and use the pick themselves. Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer, who acquired Darnold this week, says that trade didn’t reveal the team’s intentions in the draft.

“This doesn’t take us out of anything in the draft. It doesn’t take us out of taking a quarterback. It doesn’t take us out of taking any position,” Fitterer said. “What we wanted to do going into this draft through free agency, through this trade with Sam, was get rid of all the needs we have. We just wanted to get to a place where our roster is in the right spot where we can take the best available player at no. 8. We can always move up there and we can always move back, but this puts us in a position to make the right football move for this team going forward.”

If they aren’t in the quarterback draft, the Panthers and Lions, like the Bengals (no. 5) and Dolphins (no. 6), should all have good opportunities to get premier talent that in another draft might not last beyond the top five. Assuming the no. 4 pick is used on a quarterback, by Atlanta or a trade partner, the Bengals would be in position to not have to worry about the board too much. In a way, Cincinnati, which used the no. 1 pick to select quarterback Joe Burrow last year, should have the top selection again. The Bengals can take Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, regarded as this year’s best offensive lineman prospect, to help protect Burrow, or take their pick of the top pass catchers—Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, or one of two Alabama receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

Most of this maneuvering is an extreme example of a basic fact in the NFL: Quarterbacks are valued above players at all other positions. This is reflected in the ever-escalating market for established stars; today’s record-setting extension is tomorrow’s bargain. But determining which college quarterbacks will perform well in the NFL is still a sophisticated, high-stakes game of throwing darts at a board. An abundance of high-level prospects represents a lot of darts, and teams don’t want to miss an opportunity to strike. Motivated (and in some cases desperate) teams make for a hotter market than past years when fewer first-round quarterback prospects meant teams might shop picks to be used on position players. This year, the prices for picks are going to be set at quarterback prices.

Two years ago, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked why he thought there were more trades happening involving draft picks. He said one reason is that teams across the league have a much more uniform assessment of the value of picks. If everyone generally agrees about how much a first-round pick is worth, it makes it easier for teams to settle on compensation packages both sides deem fair. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, teams adopted Jimmy Johnson’s draft trade value chart to more easily discern the value of assets. The chart itself has become outdated, primarily as the new rookie wage scale instituted in 2011 has made high draft picks more valuable. Still, Belichick thinks teams generally have a shared understanding of what picks are worth.

“I would say that, in general, the trades over the last several years for the most part have been, let’s call them within 5 to 10 percent, pretty equitable trades,” said Belichick. “I would say everybody probably uses about the same value chart. I’d say in our draft trade negotiations through the years, especially the last two or three years, there hasn’t been a lot of ‘My chart says this. Your chart says that.’”

Belichick did, however, offer an important caveat:

“The first round is a little bit different because you’re trading for a very specific player at that point,” Belichick said. “In the first five, 10 picks, whatever it is, when you’re trading there you’re trading for a certain guy and when they trade out of it they know that they’re trading away from that player. It might be one or two players but it’s a much more defined situation.”

Take that a step further, to a place where teams may be trading for a very specific quarterback, and the cost and motivation driving a deal changes dramatically. That’s what makes the top of the first round this year fascinating. There might need to be a separate value chart for picks used on quarterbacks, and this draft would be a good place to start making one.